UK officials discussed NHS at ‘secret’ meetings with US drug companies as part of trade talks

Envoys sidestep ban on discussing drug prices by referring to controversial subject ‘valuing innovation’

Vincent Wood
Monday 28 October 2019 23:55 GMT
Jeremy Corbyn asks Boris Johnson about the NHS being used as a barganing chip in future trade deals

Senior British civil servants have met with representatives from a US companies to discuss the NHS in post-Brexit trade negotiations, it has been revealed.

Over a third of people surveyed in a recent poll saying they were “very concerned” about the future impact of a deal with Washington on the service.

Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, the health secretary and Liz Truss, the international trade secretary have all insisted that the NHS is “off the table” in talks with the US if the UK leaves the European Union.

But meetings have taken place where the relationship between the deal and health service remained open, sources have told Channel 4’s Dispatches.

Theres have been six formal discussions with US trade officials, one told the programme.

Representatives form American drug companies were also reportedly given direct access to British officials in five meetings – two of which took place in Washington.

The most recent is understood to have taken place after Mr Johnson became prime minister.

A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said it was “no secret” they met with US businesses to understand their position.

“That’s how it works”, they added.

However, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the prime minister “wants to sign up to a US trade deal with Trump which would force the NHS to buy pricier drugs from US pharmaceutical companies putting NHS finances at risk”.

He added: “These revelations that trade officials had secret face-to-face discussions with US pharmaceutical giants to make the NHS pay more for US medicines shows you can’t believe a word Boris Johnson says on the NHS.”

'Boris Johnson is trying to hoodwink the British people on the NHS' says Chuka Umunna

The revelation about the meetings comes, amid an attempt by Donald Trump to force trading partners to make their pharmaceuticals more expensive – with the White House blaming low prices in other countries for the excessive cost of drugs in the US.

Tahir Amin, a lawyer and expert on drug pricing and previous US trade negotiations, told Dispatches: “It’s important to remember that the UK, in a Brexit situation, is going to be the weaker negotiating party. And if we take into account how the US has negotiated similar agreements with other countries such as the Korean trade agreement, Canada, Mexico, they have inevitably got what they wanted in those situations.

He added the US pharmaceutical sector “will certainly be lobbying hard to push its agenda in these agreements”.

He said: “They see an opportunity to prise open the market and actually remove some of the barriers that the NHS presents in terms of government regulating of prices. They basically want to turn it into a system whereby it’s the pharmaceutical companies who set the prices.”

It is understood UK officials have managed to work around a ban on discussing drug pricing with US firms by using alternative “coded” language.

Trade ministers had been barred from discussing the NHS with US counterparts according to a letter from senior Downing Street officials published in The Sun, which said service provision and drug pricing “are not on the table and we do not therefore expect to see any internal discussion of them”.

However, a source told the Channel 4 show that Ms Truss’ department had sidestepped this issue by using alternative language that did not directly reference drug prices.

She had referred to the issue as “valuing innovation”.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Mr Amin added that it was quite possible the trade deal would not feature the words NHS – and instead pharmaceutical companies would be given the green light through “coded language” in any future agreement.

A government spokesperson said: “The NHS is not, and never will be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic‎. The government is committed to the guiding principles of the NHS – that it is universal and free at the point of need. The government will continue to ensure that patients have access to clinically and cost-effective medicines that are affordable to the NHS, and that decisions on how to run public services such as the NHS are made by the UK government and the Devolved Administrations, not our trade partners.

“The sustainability of the NHS is an absolute priority for the government. We could not agree to any proposals on medicines pricing or access that would put NHS finances at risk or reduce clinician and patient choice.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in